National Arab Heritage Month

To celebrate National Arab Heritage Month, Einstein’s office of diversity and inclusion spoke with Gilbert Salloum, Ph.D. ’21, and Mirvat El-Sibai, Ph.D. ’06, to learn more about their journeys in science. Drs. Salloum and El-Sibai are both from Lebanon and did their Ph.D. work in the department of molecular pharmacology, under the mentorship of Jonathan Backer, M.D., professor of molecular pharmacology and the William S. Lasdon Chair in Pharmacology. Dr. Salloum was also mentored by Anne Bresnick, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry, associate dean for postdoctoral affairs, and director of the Belfer Institute for Advanced Biomedical Studies. Since graduating, Dr. El-Sibai has encouraged a number of her undergraduate students—including Dr. Salloum—to apply to Einstein.

Road to Science

As an undergraduate student in Lebanon, Gilbert Salloum took a cell and molecular biology class taught by Dr. Mirvat El-Sibai. That experience piqued his interest in research, and he accepted an invitation to work in Dr. El-Sibai’s lab.

“I didn’t have much exposure to research before working in Dr. El-Sibai’s lab. Once I dove into it, I fell in love with cancer research,” explains Dr. Salloum. When it came time to decide what he’d do next, he followed the advice of Dr. El-Sibai, who encouraged him to continue his education at Einstein.  

Shalloum-el-sibai
Dr. Salloum and Dr. El-Sibai

Dr. El-Sibai has persuaded a number of her students to apply to Einstein since graduating from the College of Medicine and establishing her own lab at the Lebanese American University School of Arts and Sciences. Several in addition to Dr. Salloum have come to Einstein as a result of her mentorship and guidance. They include Bassem Khalil, Ph.D. ’16; Samer Hanna, Ph.D. ’18; and current Einstein graduate students Noura Ghazale and Emilio Merheb.

Her own pursuit of science was inspired by a high school biology teacher. “I was excited to be on the edge of knowledge and learn about biology,” she recalls.

Challenges along the Way

Both Dr. Salloum and Dr. El-Sibai encountered obstacles to realizing their dreams of success within academia.

“There are many brilliant and hardworking people in Lebanon but, unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of resources for developing and nurturing young scientists,” says Dr. Salloum. Some of his greatest challenges involved making the most out of the limited tools that were available in Lebanon.

He also experienced difficulties in acclimating to the United States. “I come from a region that’s known for its volatile situation. At first this led me to hesitate about sharing my cultural identity. There also were language barriers and I was concerned that people would reject me. As I’ve gotten more comfortable sharing my cultural identity, I see the value of sharing my experiences.”

He adds, “Dr. El-Sibai’s mentorship helped me through my journey, and I hope to help improve experiences for others from my community by offering friendship and support.”

In the United States, there were three obstacles in particular for Dr. El-Sibai—being a woman, being a Muslim, and coming from the Middle East. Her time in the States took place after 9/11 and during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.

“During my first few months in America, I was scared to speak,” she recalls. “I felt a bit of culture shock. It was the first time I’d seen a Macintosh computer and there was a learning curve to overcome. And, because of recent events, there were sometimes tensions. But I was open, often speaking out and sharing my point of view.”

Words of Wisdom

Dr. Salloum and Dr. El-Sibai each offered words of wisdom for others interested in pursuing science, particularly those who also are underrepresented in the field.

“Be fierce; work hard and work smart to reach your goals,” says Dr. Salloum. “No matter how much you fail, get back up on your feet.” He also recommends reaching out to others to form connections. This helped him overcome some of his own difficulties. “You’d be surprised to find out how many others are experiencing the same things.”

“Stay focused and do the work,” says Dr. El-Sibai. “It will pay off. My mentor taught me that.”

Career Highlights

Being the first person in his extended family to graduate from high school was a milestone for Dr. Salloum. Going on to graduate from college and then earn his Ph.D. were even greater accomplishments. He recently accepted a position as a postdoctoral research fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

“I’m proud of defending my thesis because of the sweat, effort, and long nights that went into it. I was able to develop critical-thinking and research skills. Now I’ve gotten a postdoctoral position, and I’m excited about that.”

Dr. Salloum emphasizes Dr. El-Sibai’s keen ability to succeed while also pushing others toward their own success. “She changed my life. If it weren’t for her recommendation, training, and continual encouragement to push me forward, I wouldn’t have gotten where I am. I know at least five other people who can say the same, and that’s just people I’ve crossed paths with.” In a recent Zoom meeting, Dr. Salloum and Dr. El-Sibai each teared up as they shared stories about their connection.

Beyond her influence on her students, Dr. El-Sibai has made several notable contributions to cancer research. She has published ten papers and articles, and notes, “With every paper published, I feel a renewed sense of accomplishment.”

In 2017, she won the prestigious Abdul Hameed Shoman Award for Arab Researchers, given by the Opportunity Desk to distinguished scientific researchers in the Arab world. However, it’s her students who bring her the highest sense of accomplishment. She has nurtured numerous scientists who have gone on to study at Einstein and elsewhere abroad. During days when she may feel discouraged about her own progress, Dr. El-Sibai finds excitement in the successes of those she has mentored.

She attributes her own success to wonderful people such as Dr. Backer and Dianne Cox, Ph.D., professor of anatomy and structural biology and of developmental and molecular biology, and to the education she received at Einstein. “They taught me science down to the core. I would look at them and want to be like them. I always wanted to help others the way they helped me. Now it’s my students who give me the most happiness. It’s about paying it forward.”

Reflections on Einstein

Dr. Salloum explains, “Einstein is such a great environment. It’s a ‘big, small community’ in that you’re able to see familiar faces who are easy to approach and interact with. Scientifically, it’s highly collaborative and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to grow at Einstein.”

Dr. Salloum was excited to share his story as part of Einstein’s recognition of National Arab Heritage Month. “There’s much to learn about people of Arab heritage beyond what’s portrayed in the media,” he says. “Celebrating National Arab Heritage Month will help people around campus identify those of our heritage, like me, and approach them. I hope it helps more people engage in meaningful conversations and build community at Einstein.”

Dr. El-Sibai’s hope is that Einstein will expand its offerings of exchange programs and internships for students from other countries. “As online education increases, it’s easier to open communication and connect with people on a national or international level,” she says. “There is so much talent to be tapped into and help grow.”

Dr. Salloum’s and Dr. El-Sibai's stories exemplify the impact of mentoring on a scientist’s career. They also illustrates the special connection that, thanks to Dr. El-Sibai’s mentorship, has developed between Lebanon and Einstein, enriching the diversity and culture of our campus community.

Editor’s Note: While many people of Arab descent share a cultural and linguistic heritage, there are 22 ethnically, politically, and religiously diverse Arab nations, located from northern Africa through western Asia.

The world’s 22 Arab nations are Algeria, Bahrain, the Comoro Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Learn more about Arab Americans here.